Throughout this year’s Sydney Film Festival I am going to be presenting my thoughts on all of the films I see. It has been a strong start. After the jump find my thoughts on We Are Still Here, Beats of the Antonov, The Hunting Ground, Palio, Results and 99 Homes.
We Are Still Here – By being set in 1979 and featuring actress Barbara Crampton, herself a product of 80’s shlock-fests like Re-Animator, the debut film from Ted Geoghegan was by design a pastiche – a throwback. I haven’t seen work from some the directors that I understand have directly inspired him, so I trust there were hints to the masters throughout. From the early frames the intention was clear. The acting was RIDICULOUS (often the result of irreparably dumb dialogue), there were self-aware exposition dumps (a la Argento, Suspiria) that had the crowd in hysterics, and the characters did dumb things like marvel at how cool the creepy basement was (and then get killed).
A couple (Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) move away from the city to a big old house in a remote town to mourn the recent death of their son. The house has a history, something dark and sinister lurking in the walls. Crampton’s character senses it immediately, but believes it is the spirt of their son that has followed them to be in their company. It turns out the evil has ties to a 120-year-old curse and the shady townsfolk know a thing or two about it. Some ‘spiritually minded’ friends join the couple and the house becomes a smorgasbord of victims. You probably won’t guess where it goes but it is pretty wild.
This is a pretty good haunted house. There are some stand-out directorial moments – a hallucinatory dream sequence that eliminates the barrier between unconsciousness and reality, a bonkers final act that escalates the splatter big time, and a surprising sincerity that manages to make sense of a mother’s grief within all the chaos. Crampton’s performance is easily the stand-out, BTW. After starting out a white-knuckled wuss, I settled into the fun and went along for the ride. I got more than a few kicks out of it, even if the sparsely effective haunted-house creeps were glued to cliche. You see a lot of haunted house horror films. This isn’t even a particularly good one, but Geoghegan shows that he has some range in the horror genre.
Beats of the Antonov – Beats of the Antonov captures, in frequently striking visuals and under dangerous circumstances, a fabulous communal musical expression of identity and hope in a troubling period of Sudanese history. The people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in Sudan are dealing with a civil war in their own incredibly life-affirming way. This documentary – essentially a musical alive with consistent drum beats, chanting and stamping feet – has an intoxicating pulse. The immense spirit and optimism of these people is so invigorating. After resurfacing from the bunkers they seek refuge in to protect themselves from the frequent aerial bombings they sing and dance and celebrate the life that has been left for them.
Director Hajooj Kuka, who visited Sydney and participated in a Q&A, said that he visited this region unsure of what path his film would take. He fell in love with the music and it became the heart and soul of his film. The musicians craft their own instruments and have complete freedom of expression. ‘Girls Music’ is one genre explored in the film – completely owned by the individual – the lyrics (drawn from experiences), the melody and the beat (often just a bucket). We get a complex insight into the Sudanese culture, a nation where the people resist racist oppression – a war against a culture and forced unification of identity as a result of the Arab-African divide – but are fighting to ensure that the current generation and those ahead don’t lose the cultural roots of the region.
The Hunting Ground, the latest film from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (Oscar-nominated The Invisible War) is a harrowing expose of rape crimes on U.S college campuses, and the devastating toll they take on students and their families as they fight for justice against institutions more interested in protecting their brand and covering-up the incident. The stats are horrifying – something like 26% of female undergraduate students will be the victim of sexual assault. The number of expulsions following sexual assault claims is shockingly miniscule. Known repeat offenders are allowed to return to school to prey again.
These prestige institutions, including Harvard and Stanford, despite the fact that they claim to take sexual assault claims very seriously, are doing everything wrong. For one thing, they provide online help on what measures to take if you are accused of sexual assault, but there is nothing on how to proceed if you wish to make a claim against someone. These young women wish to tell someone about what happened to them, but they don’t know who to tell. When they finally do, the accused aren’t punished and the women are harassed for slandering the name of the individual – often a highly prized institution asset (an athlete) or one protected by wealth.
What is extraordinary about this film is the first-person testimonies from the undergraduate survivors who band together and attempt to pursue judgement. Still dealing with the trauma, and facing uncooperative institutions, they pursue justice and spread the word about the nation-wide problem. They’re barely 20 and do all their own research and represent themselves.
Obviously, this film has had a lot of funding. It is a good-looking large-scale exploration, with a mosaic of cases that take viewers through all avenues of grounded indictment of institutional practices, offering a multitude of reasons for why change is needed immediately – the extreme value of the student-athlete, the out-of-control fraternity culture and the role of private alumni funding for the institution amongst them. This is an enraging documentary, balancing cold hard facts and personal human stories in impressive fashion. Tough to shake.
Palio – What a thrilling documentary. This is a veteran-commentated insider into the Palio, Siena’s bi-annual piazza bareback horserace – one of the craziest and exciting events I have ever witnessed – and all of the district rivalries, bribery and tactics involved. The film delves first into the history of the Palio, introducing the former jockey and Siena legend Silvano Vigni who takes us through this film and his rivalry in the 70’s and 80’s with another winning jockey. His retirement saw the launch of the career of the Gigi Bruschelli, the man who has been dominating the event ever since. Now himself a veteran, Gigi is closing in on the record for most wins and amassed enough influence to rig the race – selecting the horses he wants to race, and paying off other riders to assist him. The rising hero to oppose the contented villain is Giovanni Atzeni, a younger up-and-comer who has yet to win after 10 years of competing.
The race itself is a mix of collusion and random chance – the order the horses start in is left to a pre-race lottery, and the run-in horse (to start the event at the jockey’s choosing) is decided minutes before the event. The race lasts 90 seconds – and the first (of two) race to feature in this film is amongst the most thrilling things I have ever seen. The horses and jockeys are at high risk of injury going around the tight piazza circuit, and I was fearing for their safety. Having been aligned with the smug veteran and the talented youngster I had emotional stakes in the race too. The coverage of the race is incredible – many, many cameras, footage edited together for tremendous dramatic effect – and to be fully immersed in the sound and energy of the piazza it is essential viewing in the cinema. It becomes a gladiator-battle in the arena, as the jockeys aren’t just whipping their horses but other jockeys as well.
The film is a glorification of the event, which may be a massive turn off for some, and doesn’t cover the rates of injury (or death) to man and horse, and the barbaric element. This is a fault. But, the race has become a tradition that defines the city of Siena, and the crazy Italians just do things a bit different. In terms of technique, this is an exemplary film. My heart is still pounding.
Results – I really enjoyed Andrew Bujalski’s last film Computer Chess, but have still not seen the ‘mumblecore’ projects that attracted his notoriety. I love his offbeat tone of humour and he has drawn superb performances from Kevin Corrigan, Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders here in Results. Pearce, his Australian accent in full force, and the underrated Corrigan especially. Two personal trainers, Trevor (Pearce), the owner of Power 4 Life fitness centre and Kat (Smulders), one of his employees, find their strict health regimen and their complex feelings for one another upended by a wealthy and eccentric new client, Danny (Kevin Corrigan). Danny has been recently divorced, and when he starts training a bizarre love triangle is set in motion and they all face uncertain futures. Though a bit long – a dramatic second-half Texas trip by Pearce and Smulders’ characters meanders – this is warm and consistently funny.
The film addresses a modern culture where keeping in shape can cost a lot more than time. Unhappy, wealthy people feel like they can buy their way to happiness, spending exorbitant amounts on personal trainers and fitness regimes to improve their lives. Guru trainers like Trevor stress the importance of setting goals and making dreams of a better life a reality. But, are the lives of these trainers any better than their clients? Does strict adherence to a set of rules result in a better quality of life. In this case it doesn’t. Trevor and Kat are messed up, but they jog daily and eat power bars, so what gives?
Danny has no routine – he’s mysteriously wealthy (though it is revealed eventually) but doesn’t know what to do with all of his money. He tries what everyone else does, but it doesn’t stick. What does happen is that he develops feelings for Kat. At first she is appalled by his destructive habits – eating pizza, drinking whisky and wandering around his enormous rental house playing electric guitar, but he has character and she soon realises that she misses the luxuries of life. He has a freedom that neither Kat nor Trevor have and they are naturally intrigued by the lunatic. Trevor is trying to expand his business, but we get the sense that he isn’t business savvy. Even his close to 6-minute Youtube marketing video is full of waffle. He needs to stop talking his way around things – his feelings, particularly – and make something happen. He seems to need Kat on board for that.
Bujalski, in the tradition of Computer Chess, shows great attention to the details of the world he is creating, drawing humour out of the environment of the film – Trevor’s gym and Danny’s home particularly. The latter, with his sparsely furnished rooms, glasses still stored in their boxes and an elaborate play pen for his prowling ginger cat, is a character of its own. Results leaves plenty to stew on, and offers plenty of great moments to reflect on and enjoy. For a romantic comedy that’s pretty rare.
99 Homes – Set in Florida during America’s 2008 housing crisis, the story tracks ruthless businessman Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) who is raking in massive profits by repossessing homes. Carpenter and general handy-man Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who lives with his son and mother (Laura Dern), is one of Carver’s victims. Despite being granted 30 days to appeal the Court’s unfavourable decision, Nash and his family find Carver on their doorstep the following morning and are given mere minutes to collect any valuables and leave the premises. Even though Nash has been hunting for an attorney to represent them, the bank has instigated efficient foreclosure. They move to a hotel, as many other families have been forced to do, and in Nash’s desperation to find work and move his family into a new place he agrees to work for Carver. Attracted by the promise of regaining his home, he signs his soul over to devil and ends up evicting other people from their homes and reaping the wealthy rewards. But this lifestyle takes its toll. How far is he willing to go to resume ownership of a home and keep his family?
There are half a dozen key scenes in this film that are boiling with intensity. It is a tough film to sit endure because we are watching desperate people lose almost everything they possess, and how one man preys on those hit by the recession. The direction of the actors, and many of them were not professionals, is outstanding. As is the pulsating electro score.
The post-film Q&A with visiting director Ramin Bahrani was fantastic. He is one of the highest-respected filmmakers in the world and he provided generous and fascinating insight into some of his decision-making. He commented on using hand-held during the repossession of the middle class homes, and steadicam in the interior of Carver’s mansions to create a disconnect, and the process of directing the actors and what they brought to the film. He revealed that when he was researching he was in the courts where they were making the decisions on foreclosure in under 60 seconds. He was mistaken for a NYT journalist and may have swayed the courts into favouring home owners. I will admit that I appreciated the film even more after hearing him eloquently talk about it.
99 Homes is an emotionally intense and morally stressful recession drama, tackling a unique aspect in the housing crisis and the legal stress and cut-throat corruption accompanying the re-possession of houses. Shannon is as imposing as ever, and Garfield (remember he is a Brit) is back in fine form after a few years as Spiderman. The film has some problems – some narrative conveniences and an unnecessary final shot – but it is a very strong entry and has inspired me to visit some of Bahrani’s prior work.